A sabbatical can be paid or unpaid and allows you to work on personal projects like volunteering, studying, traveling, or starting a business. Outside of academia, sabbaticals are uncommon. A study by Society for Human Resource Management found that only 17% of U.S. companies offer any sabbatical.
In Sweden however, companies are required by law to provide their permanent employees with up to six months off. I don't believe they are paid, but at least they won't have to worry about job security upon returning. Moreover, this law has existed for 20 years!
If I met the eligibility requirements and wasn't in a hurry to leave the corporate world altogether, perhaps I might also have enjoyed my employer's sabbatical program instead of quitting in 2011. Does taking an extended break from my own business count as a sabbatical? Either way, I think the U.S. should follow in Sweden's footsteps and be more supportive of the startup community. Adopting legal policies like Sweden's might be a bit of a stretch, but we can start taking baby steps.
It's obviously a huge win for employees to be guaranteed their job back after taking six months off, but is it beneficial for employers? I think so, for one major reason: Sabbatical programs allow employers to stress-test their organizational charts, as confirmed by multiple studies and surveys.
Unplanned absences like illnesses of key team members can create chaos as the team tries to figure out how to continue delivering results similar to when everything was under normal conditions. Planned stress-tests, however, can help the team identify weak spots in advance and become better prepared to deal with unforeseen circumstances.
Here are some more specific ways sabbaticals can help companies thrive:
Sabbatical programs can work regardless of seniority, industry, length, or team size.
Outside of academia, sabbaticals aren't too common in the U.S., but that doesn't mean only universities and professors can benefit from them. These programs can be customized to fit many needs.
If you work at a small startup, you might be thinking it is nearly impossible for the team to survive without a critical member for six months. Relax, even a sabbatical of a few weeks or months can benefit your company. The Motley Fool takes pride in sending a random Fool on a two-week vacation every single month while having fun with stress-testing their structure.
Another example would be a survey of 61 nonprofit leaders who took a three-month-long sabbatical and the 30 interim leaders who stepped up during their absence. Most of the leaders reported that "the time away allowed them the space to generate new ideas for innovating in the organization and helped them gain greater confidence in themselves as leaders." Many interim leaders also gained new skills and continued carrying additional responsibilities, allowing the original leaders to focus elsewhere upon returning.
Sabbaticals can teach what schools can't.
Our educational system is broken. It was built to meet the demands of the industrial revolution, which required workers to be able to perform repetitive tasks efficiently, and hasn't changed much since then. Our technology, though, has changed a lot. Artificial intelligence can now be trained to perform many of those repetitive tasks as well as advanced analysis with little or no human input.
This requires our future hires to have strong soft skills as well as creative skills so their jobs aren't taken over by AI, at least not in the foreseeable future. A sabbatical will not only help the employee going on leave but also his or her team further develop these much-needed skills.
Out in the real world, the employee will gain experience trying to do something new for the first time, and alone. Meanwhile, the teammates will need to figure out how to divide the additional responsibilities placed on their shoulders.
Employees with side hustles can add more value to traditional organizations.
Employers want self-starters, problem solvers, and big-picture thinkers. Side hustlers happen to naturally exhibit all these traits, and more! Through experiencing the ups and downs in their own businesses, they'll become more attuned to similar challenges faced by their employer.
The employer can benefit from a side hustler's skillset, but unfortunately, many employees don't feel comfortable sharing their side projects with their bosses. If employers can make it safer for employees to experiment with new ideas at work and at home, as they do in Sweden, we'll have a much more engaged and creative workforce.
Yes, some employees might not come back after the sabbatical, but they'll forever be grateful to the employer for the encouragement. The employer also becomes part of the entrepreneur's origin story. Just take a look at how many times I've written about my Deloitte experience on Inc.com, LinkedIn, and my personal blog.
Do I hear a yes to sabbaticals?